BAHAMAS — Soups, stews and pies flavoured with chunks of sea turtle meat will soon be illegal across the 700 islands of the Bahamas, environmental activists and scientists said Sunday.
Despite opposition from many fishermen, the Bahamas has amended fisheries laws to give full protection to all sea turtles found in the Atlantic archipelago's waters by banning the harvest, possession, purchase and sale of the endangered reptiles, including their eggs. The new rules took effect yesterday.
"Young people here have never tasted turtle, but it had continued to be eaten by the older population in some of the outer islands," said Kim Aranha, a member of a Bahamian conservation group that led the campaign to protect sea turtles. "So we're really happy our work has paid off with this ban; the turtles couldn't do it themselves."
Previously, the Bahamian government permitted harvesting of all species of sea turtles except the hawksbill. Flesh had been used by restaurants and shells for tourist keepsakes despite turtles' status as endangered species.
It's impossible to gauge how many green turtles, loggerheads and other types were slaughtered each year in the Bahamas, but activists say counts of shells found in marina markets and information from fishermen indicate the haul was hefty.
"It has been an unrelenting catch," Karen Bjorndal, who has long studied marine turtle populations at the University of Florida's Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, said in a phone interview.
Bjorndal said the Bahamas' shallow seagrass beds and reefs are prime foraging grounds for the big, slow turtles, so the fishing ban will help spur the regional recovery of the creatures, which are also threatened by pollution and development on beaches where they lay eggs.
The Bahamas Sea Turtle Conservation Group has been pressuring the government for about two years to protect all sea turtle species, including distributing bumper stickers reading "Stop the Killing".
Thanks to strict new regulations that have an adverse impact on the freedom and profitability of local fishermen, sea turtles are now fully protected in the Bahamas.
Not everybody is happy with the new rules. Opponents say eating turtle meat is a local tradition. Some local fishermen - a handful of whom would regularly demand money from conservationists to free captured turtles on display at marinas - argue they should be able to catch the migrating animals without any penalty.
Jane Mather, co-chairwoman of the conservation group who has received anonymous threats in recent weeks over the ban, said penalties are still being negotiated with the government but she hopes they will be "quite serious".
"Ninety per cent of the Bahamian public don't want turtles killed," Mather said from the capital, Nassau.